The General Assembly has been in session for just over five weeks, and now the question is when is it going to be over? No one, not even the most senior leaders, know the exact answer to that, but it is becoming clear that the end is in sight.
How does one know? Well, there are “signs.”
First, the only thing that the legislature really needs to do is to adjust the budget. When the final budget is being worked on, the legislative session could soon come to an end.
Budgets have been adopted by both houses, and they now must be reconciled. While the House and Senate budgets are very different in some major ways, they are also somewhat similar. How the budgets are funded is very different, with the House budget relying on more lottery funding for education-related expenditures. The Senate budget ties teacher pay to the tenure issue, offering huge raises if teachers will voluntarily give up tenure (sounds like a bribe to me). The House and Senate budgets are very different in terms of their assumptions about spending on human services, like Medicaid.
The budgets are directionally alike in terms of pay raises for teachers and state employees. Putting aside education and human services, many of the other budgets are really similar; for example, for transportation or public safety. If the senior appropriations members can reach some agreement on the budget targets as divided between the different parts of the budget, that would allow all of the individual appropriations conferees to begin making decisions on small items. These same senior leaders need to make some decisions on some broad cross-cutting issues, like how are they going to deal with the teacher tenure issue. Once that decision is made, for example, some number of other issues will disappear as money is either freed up or taken away by the tenure decision.
Second, activity on the floor picks up. Twice this past week, a large group of bills that had recently come out of committee were added to the calendar for immediate consideration. Typically, these bills are noncontroversial local bills and don’t result in a lot of debate or highly contested votes. Legislators are trying to get their bills either through both chambers or out of one chamber and to the other because the various committees will be shutting down soon. My guess is that most committees will shut down by the end of next week, except for important bills that may need additional committee consideration.
Third, bills begin morphing into other bills. Since legislators can’t, under the rules, generally introduce new bills at this late date, anything that comes up that someone wants to take care of before next year has to be addressed by adding it to a bill that is still in play. For example, yesterday we had a Venus Flytrap-Taking Penalty/Occupancy Tax Use bill, House Bill 1059. That bill started out as a bill about Venus Flytraps and penalties for digging them up, but the sponsor of the bill evidently got a late request from his county to change the occupancy tax. What he did was grafted on an occupancy tax provision to the Venus Flytrap bill. (That bill passed on a voice vote.)
Fourth, a number of omnibus bills start moving. For example, the Senate earlier passed a regulatory reform bill, Senate Bill 612, which was recently cut into two bills — one dealing solely with environmental issues and one dealing with everything else. These two bills then were heard in House committees and moved to the House floor. These bills are like Christmas trees — attracting all sorts of new provisions much like a Christmas tree gets ornaments and lights. As we get toward the end of the session, several of these omnibus bills will get bounced back and forth between the two chambers. Ultimately, some conference committee will reconcile the difference between Senate and House versions of the bills and something will pass.
So this week we saw budgets had passed each chamber, increased floor activity, morphing of bills, and omnibus bill movement. Looks like the end of the legislative session is in sight.
One of the omnibus bills was my responsibility, in some large part. SB38 [Amend Environment Laws 2014] passed the House by a vote of 105-12, receiving broad bipartisan support. For an environmental bill running 24-pages, the vote was a bit surprising. More recently, votes on significant environmental bills have split largely along partisan lines. The bipartisan vote can be explained by the fact that most of the highly controversial items in the Senate bill had been stripped out — for example, a provision doing away with some air quality monitors or a provision creating an environmental audit privilege.
My surprise was being asked to help draft the bill and then manage it through a committee and on the floor. While I certainly think I have the expertise to handle the bill, I’m viewed as being pretty independent on environmental policy — not consistently voting with my Republican colleagues on issues like fracking. Working with Rep. Ruth Samuelson (R-Mecklenburg), we incorporated some provisions of the Senate regulatory reform bill in the new House bill but then had some of our colleagues and some state agencies like the NC Department of the Environment and Natural Resources come to us to add provisions. In theory, these provisions were supposed to be simply technical or small fixes for problems with current law, but many provisions in the Senate bill were substantial changes in present law.
The only debate about our new bill was how to handle regulation of “isolated wetlands,” small wetlands not protected under federal law, such as mountain bogs. The Homebuilders wanted the state to get out of the business of regulating wetlands other than “jurisdictional wetlands” protected under the federal Clean Water Act. Others didn’t want any change in present law. In the end, the compromise was to adjust the size of isolated wetlands that would be protected by the state, provide a definition for isolated wetlands since there are many types, and commit to study the issue between sessions to see whether the State’s laws needed to be further changed.
While numerous amendments were adopted on the floor, most of them were perfecting amendments. Even the most liberal Democrats, who voted against the bill, grudgingly praised the House bill for the significant changes made to the environmental provisions in the Senate bill. Despite this, I have no expectation that the Senate will agree to the House’s bill. I expect the Senate will not concur in the changes, and the differences will have to be resolved in a conference committee on which I hope to serve.
The non-environmental regulatory reform bill, SB493 [Regulatory Reform Act of 2014], suffered a different fate. The 32-page bill was also heard in a House committee, but when it was ready to come to the floor a quick count of the potential votes showed that the bill could fail. No one wanted to deal with that sort of train wreck, so the bill was sent back to a House committee to see whether changes could get made that would garner majority support. Some part of the problem with the bill is that it contains so much disparate stuff — from behavior analyst licensure, to my Autism Bill [HB498], to animal euthanasia, to ethics requirements for certain big city officials. Part of the complaint about the bill from both Republicans and Democrats was that they didn’t have enough time to read the bill. Clearly, while the environmental bill was viewed as having been vetted and as being largely technical, the broader regulatory reform bill was viewed as containing provisions that hadn’t been fully fleshed out.
While legislators worked on the budget and these regulatory reform bills, numerous bills — mostly local bills —moved forward. Among them were two of interest to Henderson County. HB1247 [Asheville Regional Airport] would amend the law relating to the airport to allow Buncombe and Henderson counties and the City of Asheville to appoint their commissioners or council members to the airport’s board. HB531 [Weaverville, Buncombe and Henderson] will allow the Henderson County Board of Commissioners to standardize the ceiling on fire district taxes in Henderson County. This is essentially the same bills as both Senator Apodaca and I introduced, HB28 and SB48. The airport bill passed the House and is headed to the Senate; the fire district bill is now law.
Passage of the fire district bill was primarily due to Senator Apodaca. When I encountered opposition to the bill in the House on a philosophical issue, Sen. Apodaca added the provision to another local bill and sent it back to the House. I’m sure he ended up having to give House leaders something in return for getting them to drop their philosophical objections to the bill, but I don’t know anything about that. I’m just glad that Sen. Apodaca was able to secure passage of the bill, and it is a good example of how we generally work together on legislation, particularly local legislation.
Next week, I expect the Senate will complete work on its coal ash bill, SB729 [Coal Ash Management Act of 2014]. Sen. Apodaca has taken the lead on coal ash in the Senate, and I’ve got the lead on the issue in the House – which will make for another long weekend. Only time will tell whether progress is made on reconciling the budget differences, but meetings between Senate and House conferees on the budget will likely start. Both Sen. Apodaca and I are conferees who will work on the education budget.